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Harvard Kennedy School Initiative Was Involved in Preparing Iowa State Parties for Caucus Cyberthreats

A Kennedy School initiative was involved in preparing Iowa state parties for a potentially bungled caucus.
A Kennedy School initiative was involved in preparing Iowa state parties for a potentially bungled caucus. By Caleb D. Schwartz
By Jasper G. Goodman, Crimson Staff Writer

The Defending Digital Democracy project — a Harvard Kennedy School initiative that aims to prevent election-related cyber attacks — held seminars last fall with the Iowa Democratic and Republican parties to prepare for potential threats to this year’s caucuses.

Among the dreaded scenarios they discussed were problems with the systems used to report results, according to Republican Party of Iowa spokesperson Aaron Britt, who attended the seminars.

Britt said the seminars attempted to prepare caucus officials for a potential “worst-case scenario.”

“There were cybersecurity experts, national security experts, election security experts to sort of run through different scenarios with us and help us prepare for what a worst-case-scenario might look like on caucus night,” Britt said. “Based on that, they sort of helped us develop messaging strategies and response strategies for any potential catastrophe that might take place.”

That nightmare appeared to become a reality Monday night, as Democratic caucus results were delayed due to problems with the app that the party used to report the outcomes. Roughly eight percent of Democratic precincts are yet to be reported as of Wednesday evening, and the race is still considered too close to call by the Associated Press.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs — the HKS center that houses the initiative — said the Defending Digital Democracy Project held “a bipartisan cyber security tabletop exercise” in November to help the parties prepare for cyber threats ahead of Monday’s caucuses.

“The table top exercise simulated cyber and misinformation threats the parties could face prior to, during and after the caucuses,” the statement read.

The Defending Digital Democracy project has held cybersecurity preparedness exercises with election officials from 44 states, according to the statement.

The statement also clarified the project had no role in developing or testing the app used during the caucuses.

“It was not a technical exercise, and the technologies used on Caucus Night were not used or tested during the exercise,” the statement read. “Members of the D3P team, including Eric Rosenbach and Robby Mook, were not involved in vetting, approving or testing specific technologies used by the parties on Caucus Night at any time before, during or after this exercise.”

Eric B. Rosenbach, the co-director of the Belfer Center, and Robert E. Mook, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager in 2016, helped to start the Defending Digital Democracy Project.

Iowa Democrats used an app developed by Shadow Inc. — a company founded by ex-Clinton campaign staffers — to have precincts report their results this year. In a press conference Tuesday, Iowa Democratic Party chairman Troy Price blamed a “a coding error” for the delay in the results.

In a statement posted on Shadow Inc.’s website, the company’s CEO, Gerard Niemira, acknowledged the failures in the process used to relay the Democratic caucus results.

“We sincerely regret the delay in the reporting of the results of last night's Iowa caucuses and the uncertainty it has caused to the candidates, their campaigns, and Democratic caucus-goers,” Niemira’s statement read. “As the Iowa Democratic Party has confirmed, the underlying data and collection process via Shadow's mobile caucus app was sound and accurate, but our process to transmit that caucus results data generated via the app to the IDP was not.”

The state’s Republican Party — which used a different app than the Democrats to tabulate their caucus results — had no reporting problems.

“Our reporting system worked flawlessly,” Britt said. “We never had an issue on caucus night.”

The GOP race in Iowa was virtually uncontested. President Donald J. Trump received 97 percent of the state’s Republican delegates.

Harvard Government Professor Jon C. Rogowski, who was in Iowa for the caucuses, said that the party’s failure to release timely results this year could lead to it losing its status as the first in the nation to vote.

“This very well could lead to Iowa losing its place as the first state to participate in the primary process,” Rogowski wrote in an email. “A number of other proposals have been floated over the years, including a nationwide primary, or choosing another state that may be more demographically representative.”

Iowa, which receives disproportionate attention from presidential candidates, has an electorate vastly less diverse than that of the broader Democratic electorate. While more than 9 in 10 Iowa caucus-goers on Monday were white, according to entrance polls, that figure is closer to 60 percent for the party as a whole.

As of Wednesday evening, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Peter P. M. Buttigieg ’04 held a narrow lead in Iowa over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) with 92 percent of precincts reporting.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy SchoolDemocratsRepublicansFront Middle Feature2020 Election